Last week was Vladimir Putin’s 62nd birthday. Rather than the occasion of the Russian President’s birthday, however, what was widely reported in the press, on television and other media in the UK was a particular present that he received: entitled The Twelve Labours of Putin, a special exhibition of 12 imaginative portraits had been commissioned by the President’s ‘friends’, each one depicting Vladimir Putin in the style of Hercules, undertaking an updated version of one of the famous ‘labours’.
‘Crass’, ‘Fatuously Heroic’, ‘Dictator Camp’, and just plain ‘Kitsch’ have been among the typical terms that have been circulating in the press and other media to describe the art show last week. Taking a heritage perspective however, the deployment of a repertoire of Classical imagery, design and aesthetics has a good deal of pedigree. Indeed, Classical civilisations themselves were often at pains to secure legitimising credentials and heroic embrocation. Greek Herakles becomes a Roman Hercules, and is now a Russian Putin.
The Classical reservoir of symbolic ‘heritage capital’ has been a remarkably durable resource. Indeed, such ‘classical fashions’ have seemingly managed to remain in vogue despite some very unsavoury baggage. The very name – fascist – for instance, is derived from the ‘clubs’ that were used as a symbols of the Praetorian Guards in Ancient Rome, while both Mussolini and Hitler were in thrall to Greek and Roman styles. While many of the obvious Classical references embodied in the Modern Olympic Games Movement reflected later nineteenth century concerns, the iconic flame, lit on Mount Olympus and carried by a chain of torch bearers to be the centre piece of the Opening Ceremony is an entirely Nazi invented tradition, first carried out in Berlin in 1936. It has been an unquestioned theatrical mainstay of the Olympic Games ever since.
A walk around almost any European city will reveal a multitude of buildings and urban plans, inspired by Classical references. Such architectural forms are also dominant in many other cities around the world, especially those of ‘white settler’ nations – such as in Canberra (Australia), and in almost all US State capitals, led by the example of the Mall in Washington.
Many of these buildings and urban plans were designed and built by imperialists, industrialists, diplomats and politicians, schooled in the Classics, and only too ready to dress a contemporary hero in a toga.
David Hume, with traffic cone – after a wild toga party (Edinburgh)
George Washington, in Classical garb
Arguably, Vladimir Putin looks no less ridiculous than George Washington: both look set to head off to a Fresher’s Week toga party. Now: I must get back to my day job – of writing lectures, giving seminars and attending some academic colloquia – I am not on the University Senate, but I do often eat my lunch in the Exeter University ‘Forum’. Classical fashions never die, it seems!